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A Gentleman’s Guide to Your Girlfriend’s Makeup Routine

Read this to avoid embarrassing yourself—and offending the made-up partner you love

The thing about makeup is men act like they prefer women who don’t wear it, but what they really mean is they want a woman who is so naturally beautiful and flawless that she doesn’t have to. The thing about makeup is even that woman wears it, too. The thing about makeup is women wear it if they want, and also because they feel they have to — it’s treated as something both necessary to be a woman and incredibly appealing, but also frivolous and vain.

We’ve all reconciled that combination in different ways, and the fallout can be complicated and confusing — especially for our male partners. So here is a basic guide to what’s going on with all that product. There’s far too much makeup out there to give you a comprehensive toolkit, but this overview will help you avoid embarrassing yourself or offending the made-up partner you love. Even better: It might help you find that perfect concealer for your undereye bags too, buddy. Makeup isn’t just for women!

First, let’s talk about the what, and then we’ll talk about the why.

The What

Here’s the deal: The idea with makeup is to pretty much erase the existing face so we can then “paint” a different one back on with more makeup. The old face is fine, to be sure, but the new face is more exciting and alive-looking — more perfect. It is, in many ways, a literal mask, an artificial self to present to the world.

Most women feel this is a pretty bang-up deal. You get to have a lot of different faces depending on how you feel. If more men understood this, they would remain more in awe of it, and perhaps even jealous, because of the theatricality and alternate identity it allows.

For all the ways in which women are shackled by feminine norms — and there is no doubt it also limits us — makeup can also be liberating. It’s a weird catch-22. We may hate that we feel we have to wear it; we also love that it’s an option to look as dramatically different as we choose — and it’s socially accepted to do so. There’s also no doubt that it can be fun and sexy, too.

So What Is All That Shit on Her Sink?

What you need to understand is that all the stuff women slather on their faces isn’t necessarily makeup, per se. The average woman, according to recent research, uses 16 products a morning, spending on average 10 minutes a day slathering it on, and another six minutes on average at night to take it all off. Those products are a combination of makeup and skincare aids that mainly fall into four categories.

Skincare

Odds are, your woman is putting on a variety of serums, anti-aging products, moisturizers, peels, toners and sunscreens to simply keep her skin in good condition — even if she’s only 25. Trends come and go. Right now Korean skincare is a big deal, which means women you know are putting something called snail mucus on her face. Not kidding.

If she has acne, she may be applying a separate, additional regimen of anti-acne products. This is so her face is as clear, moisturized and flawless as possible so it looks good without makeup, but also so that it will look better with makeup. Smoother, plumper, hydrated skin takes makeup better, just like you sand down a picnic table before you paint it.

All this shit very well may be in addition to appointments made with dermatologists, facialists or aestheticians. She might get laser treatments to clear up her skin, or take meds to keep it from breaking out.

Even women who “don’t wear makeup” do a fuck ton of this work. So don’t ever think that a woman who is makeup-free doesn’t have to spend a big chunk of the day (and wallet!) in front of a mirror or at various appointments doing some level of mysterious skin alchemy.

Yes, some women have really great skin already and don’t need all that. But I can assure you they are still doing “maintenance” to keep it that way.

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Primers

There’s an entire line of products that prep her face after the skincare part is done entirely to help the makeup go on smoothly and stay on longer. These are primers, and women put them on (again, just like you’d slap on a table before painting it) their eyelids, face and even eyelashes. It’s literally just a coat of something in gel, cream or powder form that makes the makeup stick on better and longer.

Foundations and Concealers

Let’s start with what seems to be the most confusing thing about makeup to men: What is that base coat and why are there so many kinds? Well, in short, her face is a canvas, and she has to start with a clean, clear, smooth one.

Historically, clearing away all imperfections meant poisoning yourself with lead. Women were beautiful, but very dead. Enter the far less lethal solution to clear-looking skin with a lifespan: foundation. It’s basically an oil, butter, wax, gel, cream or powder with pigment added so it will match the color of your skin. It can go all over your face to — pattern alert — make you look smoothed out, hydrated and flawless.

Concealers do the same thing, but in concentrated form for specific red areas of her face. So in addition to a big tube of foundation a woman might apply, she might also use a smaller tube of something that looks the same, but she will just put it under her eyes, on blemishes or around her nose.

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Then, there’s contouring, a technique that dates back to mid-1500s. Powders or creams that are both darker and lighter than her complexion are used to create “contours,” or the illusion of high cheekbones and other dynamics for dramatic effect. Newly popularized by drag culture, contouring is all the rage, and there are thousands of videos instructing women how to change their face so they appear to have cheekbones that could cut diamonds.

After this, she might use a powder to “set” the foundation or lock it all in. This will help it stay on longer or not look all shiny, unless dewy and fresh is the look she’s going for.

If this sounds like a lot of work for a different face that lasts, at max, for a day, it is.

Eyes

When you think of dramatic, alluring eyes that pierce your dick’s soul, you’re thinking of eye makeup.

Eyeshadow is the cream, gel or powder that goes on the eyelid. Mascara is the gunky stuff that just goes on the eyelashes to make them appear thicker and longer. Eyeliner is typically liquid or pencil — it’s just a concentrated form of eyeshadow, in a sense, that lines the eyelid or undereye.

Eyeliner and eyeshadow can be used interchangeably to some extent to recreate some of the same effects. This might be why men are always getting them mixed up. That’s fine. It’s kind of cute.

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Eyebrows

Thin, arched eyebrows, big bushy eyebrows or no eyebrows at all: What women do to their brows has changed nearly every decade since we could move them to express our displeasure. This includes waxing, plucking, painting them on with eyebrow gel or eyebrow pencil — and now, threading and microblading. It’s exhausting and painful. But the difference is staggering.

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Lipstick

All makeup comes with charged meaning for what it represents, but none so powerful as the touch of color and excitement lipstick offers. Not all women wear it. Some women are known for it. I promise you, every woman has an opinion on it.

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There are also primers to put on before lipstick so the lipstick doesn’t come off easily, pencils to line the lips first, and even products to plump them up too. Within the cult of lipstick, there are entire rules about what shades to wear and when and what they’re for. Typically, women are advised to either punch up the lips or the eyes, and not both. Lipstick has long been thought of as “nighttime makeup” because it’s so bold. That’s no longer true. Still, while all rules are made to be broken, when people act like makeup looks “whorish,” it’s likely because the eyes and lips are done up at the same time.

As someone who isn’t a lipstick person — it looks great on some women, but garish on others — I still think of this moving essay by Elena Zhang about her mother’s lipsticks and what they taught her about not just her mother, but femininity. Women have a very personal and idiosyncratic relationship with all makeup, but especially their stance on lipstick. All you have to do is ask a woman to tell you her thoughts, and you will likely be treated to en entire diatribe on a secret world of femininity you’ve never been privy to.

Often, women have a “signature lip color,” and many women blend multiple lipsticks to even create their own.

Blush

Blush goes on the cheeks, maybe the temples, maybe the nose. It’s to add natural-looking color back to the erased face so she doesn’t look completely goth. Rather than go out and get an actual bit of color from the sun (risk: aging, skin cancer), many women use blush to create a sunkissed look instead.

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Makeup Removal

If she puts that much shit on your face, she’s going to need something to blast it off. A pressure washer would come in handy here, but unfortunately, that would peel her actual face off, too.

So at night, women will repeat a similar regime to the one they do in the morning of moisturizing and toning and serum-ing. Then they will likely add back in the acne treatment and whatever anti-aging regimen they use. Sometimes there are entirely different products for this, because she needs certain shit to moisturize overnight that isn’t the same shit she needed to moisturize for the day.

The Why

So… What About Women Who Wear Makeup to Look ‘Natural‘?

Uh, it takes almost all the same work, and definitely all the same prep or more, to apply these products in such a way as to look like they aren’t there. Women do all that work to look like they haven’t so you don’t think they tried but they had to try because if they didn’t they wouldn’t actually look good, just sickly.

Remember, the devil’s greatest trick was convincing us he didn’t exist.

But Why Do You Do It? You Don’t Really Need All That Shit, Right?

Fuck no, we don’t need it in the life-or-death sense. But on a practical level, we do. Plenty of jobs, like bartending and hotel work, require women (and have a legal loophole to do so) to wear some makeup. There can be a social stigma of lack of professionalism or femininity if we don’t comply. Women who don’t wear makeup are often assumed to be lesbians, gender rebels breaking social norms, refusing to comply with hetero definitions of attractiveness.

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So no, we don’t “need” it insomuch as everyone should be able to look how they look without the assistance of 20 products a day and an honorary degree in face painting. By that token, men don’t “need” giant watches, messenger bags, that one good suit, hair plugs or big muscles, but try telling, uh, you that.

We do it because of a combination of having to and wanting to.

Isn’t It Expensive?

Recent figures suggest the average woman will drop $300,000 in her lifetime on makeup. So it’s as expensive as a solid beginning for a nest egg, or a home. Add to this the pink tax, which generally dictates that whatever women buy to maintain femininity will cost them more, and then consider that they earn less than men, and you might be inclined to think it’s all a big scam.

It is a scam! All gender is a scam, man! The phone call is coming from inside the house! Still, we muddle through, and it’s much, much easier with a great color-correcting bb cream.

Are Women Just Wearing It Because They’re Insecure?

Not in the slightest, but also yes, of course, completely. In the sense that women wear makeup in large part because society has sent the message that our faces aren’t good enough as they are, yes. But at the same time, again, we have internalized the values of our oppressors and tried to make it a chill hang for us. And now we actually enjoy it, too. It’s a love-hate thing, like how you feel about your dick and the things it makes you do.

Theoretically we’d all be better off without it. Cosmetics often have a lot of bad shit in them that end up necessitating the need for even more product, so they aren’t always great for your skin, either.

But, again, makeup is theatrical and fun, so wearing it is a way of experimenting with how you look, enhancing the features you like the most and the least. It’s playing dramatic dress-up, and many women who’ve worn makeup for a long time think of how they look with makeup as just as real and true an indication of how they look as how they look without it.

Isn’t It Just a Trick?

If it is, it’s a pretty fuckin’ great trick. But so is wearing a hat to cover up being bald.

I’m a Giant Baby, and I Hate It. What Am I Supposed to Do?

No one cares if you hate it. Also, you’re lying: Again, you just want a woman you deem beautiful enough to look good without makeup, although as outlined above, you don’t realize what goes into that. And what you think of as a no-makeup woman is actually probably a natural-makeup woman.

So if you’re a man dating a woman who wears makeup, which means you’re a man, you really only need to remember two things here: Never act like it’s not okay that women you know wear whatever makeup they like, and I can’t stress this enough — whatever she likes. And last but not least, never kiss her face all over or rub your big dumb sweaty face on hers right after she’s applied it. If nothing else, at least now you understand how much effort she’s put into it.